Friday, March 6, 2009

Opening a Can of Worms - Curriculum Reform at ASU

Yesterday I opened a can of worms by sending a letter to folks over at ASU regarding their plans for curriculum reform and informing other professional organizations who may be interested. This was in immediate response to plans I had heard for them to eliminate the Geology BS degree at ASU. It was also in part an attempt at re-engagement with ASU in respect to curriculum. I had provided input to the department as they created the School of Earth and Space Exploration out of the department of Geological Sciences and the department of Astronomy (there may have been others as well) back in 2005. During the planning stages I had some great interaction, but once the department was formed and a new director hired, I heard nothing. My attempts at contact were unanswered - the professors I had dealt with previously were responsive but no longer in places of authority and it appeared that the those in authority were too busy with other things. Before long I simply gave up as I was also busy with other things. Anyway, I digress.

The letter I sent was lengthy and essentially provided suggestions for curriculum as well as research directions important to the practice of geology. As a public university (regardless of how poor the state funding is at the moment) I feel that ASU has a responsibility to the people of Arizona to provide education needs for the state. From the perspective of practicing geologists, ASU has been falling short for some time and the trend heading in the wrong direction. I hope to work with ASU reverse this trend.

Lee Allison (the State Geologist) posted an email response to me from Tom Sharp, the Associate Director for Undergraduate Studies in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and I've copied what he posted below:

Let me clarify what we are doing with our degrees. Currently we have a B.S. in Geological Sciences and a B.S. in Earth and Space Exploration. We are going to make the degree in Geological Sciences a concentration within the Earth and Space Exploration B.S. Although this is technically doing away with the BS in Geological Sciences, in reality is is simply putting it under the umbrella of Earth and Space Exploration. Under that umbrella, the degree is more rigorous and has an engineering component.

There will be several other Earth and Space Exploration tracks that students can select including astrophysics, earth and space exploration (earth and space science combined with engineering), and instrumentation. Already, our geology majors are sharing classes with Earth and Space majors and engineers. I think that we should consider a concentration in engineering geology.

We are also creating a new degree, which is a environmental earth science. This is not as rigorous as our geology degree, but we feel that there is a market for such a degree and that it might help grow all of our programs.

One of the issues that I am also dealing with right now is field geology. With all the budget cuts and a change in student fee accounting, we are having difficulty paying for field trips and field classes. We all agree that these are critical, but we have to be creative about how to finance these. We will be setting up a foundation account specifically to support field studies and requesting that alumni and local industry contribute to make sure that we can keep a strong field program going in spite of cuts in state funding.

His response is a little reassuring but mostly troubling. I hope that the new degree track will indeed be more rigorous and that it will return to a strong geology degree. But, I think that generally re-aligning degrees in this manner often lowers the bar rather than raises it. I fear that if the bar is lowered any further that it could adversely impact the practice of geology in the state of Arizona. However, this does seem to be the beginning of a dialogue - potentially a very productive dialogue, so I do have hope.

Another troubling aspect is the last comment regarding field geology and field trips for their geology classes. Field trips and field geology are absolutely essential to the practice of geology. However the funding issues work out, a geology program without field trips is like a restaurant without food - pointless. I hope that solutions can be found for this very troubling development.

I may post the text of the full letter at some point, but for now I think I've rocked the boat enough.

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